Creationism: The Debate About The Debate — II

THE confrontationalist vs. accommodationalist debate being waged by the rational side of “The Controversy” over evolution and creationism seems to be continuing. Our last post about this was here: The Debate About The Debate, in which we said:

We all know there’s no scientific debate about the broad acceptance earned by the theory of evolution. … The creationists offer lies and confusion, but nothing of substance, so there is never any reason to engage them on issues like evidence or logic — they have neither.

[…]

The Curmudgeon stands by his policy of indifference. Actually, it’s a watchful and armed indifference, because sometimes the crazies get out of hand.

In the Guardian, a British daily newspaper of which Labour Party voters are perhaps 80% of the readers, we read Science and religion need a truce. The article is subtitled: “Atheists are attacking the idea that science and faith can be compatible, but confrontation won’t spread the truth of evolution.” Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins – most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, The God Delusion – returns to writing about science. Dawkins’s new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, will inform and regale us with the stunning “evidence for evolution” … But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’s new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

Surely not those who need it most: America’s anti-evolutionists. These religious adherents often view science itself as an assault on their faith and doggedly refuse to accept evolution because they fear it so utterly denies God that it will lead them, and their children, straight into a world of moral depravity and meaninglessness. An in-your-face atheist touting evolution, like Dawkins, is probably the last messenger they’ll heed.

Precisely! Let’s read on:

Dawkins will, however, be championed by many scientists, especially the most secular – those who were galvanised by [Dawkins’ earlier book] The God Delusion and inspired by it to take a newly confrontational approach toward America’s religious majority.

[…]

It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers – often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term – want to change the country’s science community in a lasting way. They’d have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.

That’s a good summary of the “confrontationalist” position. On the other hand:

More moderate scientists, however – let us call them the accommodationists – still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science. Personally, these scientists may be atheists, agnostics or believers. Whatever their views on the relationship between science and religion, politically, spiritually and practically they see no need to fight over it.

Thus the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences take the stance that science and religion can be perfectly compatible – and are regularly blasted for it by the New Atheists.

[…]

A smaller but highly regarded nonprofit organisation called the National Centre for Science Education [NCSE] has drawn at least as much of the New Atheists’ ire, however.

[…]

In this endeavour, it [the NCSE] has, of necessity, made frequent alliances with religious believers who also support the teaching of evolution, seeking to forge a broad coalition capable of beating back the advances of fundamentalists who want to weaken textbooks or science standards. In the famous 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, evolution trial, for instance, the NCSE contributed scientific advice to a legal team that put a theologian and a Catholic biologist on the stand.

Yes, and that tactic was entirely successful. It’s doubtful — at least to us — that the case would have gone nearly so well if all the plaintiffs’ witnesses had been strident atheists. We continue:

In this context, the New Atheists have chosen their course: confrontation. And groups like the NCSE have chosen the opposite route: Work with all who support the teaching of evolution regardless of their beliefs, and attempt to sway those who are uncertain but perhaps convincible.

Having described what we call “the debate about the debate,” the Guardian concludes their article on a most interesting note:

Despite the resultant bitterness, however, there is at least one figure both sides respect – the man who started it all: Charles Darwin. What would he have done in this situation?

Good question!

It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it:

[Quoting Darwin:] Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science.

We found a source for that quote here: Letter 12757 — Darwin, C. R. to Aveling, E. B., 13 Oct 1880, and it’s also mentioned here, in Wikipedia.

This is how the Guardian article ends:

Darwin and Dawkins differ by much more than a few letters, then – something the New Atheists ought to deeply consider.

What can we add to this? We can’t resolve the debate, but we can mention a few points that ought to be agreeable to all, but which undoubtedly won’t be:

1. There’s no scientific debate over the validity of the theory of evolution, the age of the earth, etc. When all the scientific objections have been swept away, as they were during and shortly after Darwin’s lifetime (for example: The Age of the Sun), and as each new line of evidence is explored — genetics, molecular biology, radiometric dating, plate tectonics, etc. — and as these independent lines of evidence turn out to be consistent with evolution, there is no rational basis for rejection of the theory. (We know you all agree with this.)

2. Clearly, regardless of what the creationists say, evolution-denial is entirely religious. The confrontationalists have correctly identified the root cause of the problem — but have they adopted the proper remedy? We don’t think so.

3. The followers of science-denying sects are free to believe and preach as they like; however government schools must be uncompromising in teaching science and making no concessions to those who want their religious doctrines included in the curriculum. The debate here should be kept strictly on scientific and constitutional grounds, where our case is virtually invulnerable. There is nothing to be gained by challenging anyone’s faith; to the contrary, there is much to lose that way.

4. Those who openly reject evolution and related scientific theories because of their religious beliefs are often honest in doing so (notwithstanding their woeful confusion about science). This much should be recognized, even as we simultaneously insist that there be no state support for the contents of their creed. Such people will never accommodate their beliefs to science, but they shouldn’t be made to do so. Each side can agree to leave the other alone. Religious people who accept the situation can be regarded as “honest creationists,” and we see no need to harass them. Indeed, it’s rather outrageous to do so.

5. The only cause for confrontation with openly religious creationists is if some choose a malevolent course and seek to impose some kind of theocratic control over science education and the conduct of science itself. They are aggressors, and there is no room for compromise here. In our final point we’ll discuss what form the confrontation should take.

6. Evolution-deniers who also deny that their position is religious are actually engaged in a form of double denial. Such people are worthy only of contempt, both from science-minded people and also from those who are openly religious in their science-denial. There can be no compromise here either. The double deniers are, in truth, the enemies of all.

7. So there is certainly room for confrontation — of a sort. But we see no reason to confront those who practice their religion and leave the secular world to go its own way. There are three reasons for this: (a) they won’t abandon their religious beliefs anyway; (b) they have committed no aggression; and (c) such confrontation tends to antagonize the majority of religious people who don’t share the theocratic goals of aggressive creationists, but who may feel obliged to support them — a counter-productive result indeed.

8. As for the would-be theocrats, their malevolent designs must be thwarted; but we still see no reason to confront them regarding their religious beliefs. You won’t change their minds. It’s not their beliefs we should be worried about, it’s their actions. This is purely a political struggle. You won’t score any points attacking religion, but you’ll have a lot of allies by framing the confrontation in terms of constitutionally resisting theocracy.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Creationism: The Debate About The Debate — II

  1. From The Guardian: “Who in the United States will read Dawkins’s new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind? Surely not those who need it most: America’s anti-evolutionists.”

    Why is it so hard for people to distinguish between the anti-evolution activists (call them them “1%ers” to conform to Dawkins’ terminology) and the rank-and-file evolution deniers (which Dawkins calls “40%ers” of which I suspect only ~1/2 are beyond hope)?

    To the hopeless ~20% it doesn’t matter whether Dawkins or Francis Collins is doing the talking, nothing will change their mind.

    The not hopeless ~20% might do better with an “accomodationalist” if that’s what the author means, but I think that it’s the “40 to 70%ers” who precariously accept evolution, have little or no interest in science, and are mostly religious, are the ones most done a disservice by confrontationalists.

  2. Nicely done, Curmie. Well, how about a third option (other than accomodationalist or confrontationist)…

    Why not try the philosophically true statement that science is silent on matters metaphysical, since it has the natural as its domain only? Therefore, anything “outside” of the natural domain (say… something super-natural) is beyond the scope of science. Likewise things natural/empirical are beyond the scope of metaphysics. Thus scientists go back to their labs and class rooms and theologians go back to their churches and we all leave each other alone.

    What would we call that approach?

  3. LRA wrote: “What would we call that approach?”

    Sounds like Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria).

  4. Yup, NOMA. Sounds good. But it doesn’t stop the creationists.

  5. Curmudgeon wrote: “Yup, NOMA. Sounds good. But it doesn’t stop the creationists.”

    ‘Course not. It gives them (activists, if not their clueless cheerleaders) yet another option to misrepresent.

    A related issue was brought to my attention by Terry Gray (a TE who called himself a “creationist”) in a ~1996 critique of “Darwin’s Black Box.” He contrasted ultimate causes with proximate causes, noting that science (and thus evolution) determines only the latter. A key feature of any variety of creationism, especially ID, is to bait-and-switch proximate and ultimate causes. The extreme “confrontationalist” positions seem to do the same, but (to me at least) it seems more like an “unwarranted extrapolation from proximate to ultimate” rather than a deliberate bait-and-switch.

  6. Gabriel Hanna

    One problem with the NOMA idea is that religions make empirical claims all the time. Another problem is both religion and science have consequences for policy, and people who advocate a given policy will try to conscript them into the policy argument.

    For example, the problem of STDs, whether here or in Africa.

    Me, I’m more of an accomodationalist, but I think we need to face the magnitude of the problem squarely.

  7. Gabriel Hanna says: “Me, I’m more of an accomodationalist, but I think we need to face the magnitude of the problem squarely.”

    Being an accomodationalist is fine, as long as it doesn’t mean compromise. Cooperation is desirable. I think that’s the position of the NCSE. Neither side is caving, but they’re willing to work together where their interests don’t conflict. That non-conflicting area is surprisingly large. For example, loads of religious people have no problem with science being taught to their kids.

  8. Philosophically, the difference between theistic evolutionists and design theorists is that the latter, but not the former, think that the ultimate cause “shows through” the proximate causes, such that examination of the proximate causes results in knowledge of ultimate cause(s) — in particular, the knowledge that the ultimate cause is an intelligent entity of some variety.

    But all that be as it may — for advocates of responsible science education, the only important thing is to point out that such debates are philosophical. They may be interesting; they may be important; they may be resolved through argumentation and analysis — but they are not, for all that, scientific. And saying that, and not making too much hay out of the failure of demarcation, are all that we need to keep this sort of nonsense out of the science classroom.

  9. I’m too late to this discussion to do any more than applaud this excellent piece and splendid comments! Well done!

  10. Carl Sachs wrote: “Philosophically, the difference between theistic evolutionists and design theorists is that the latter, but not the former, think that the ultimate cause “shows through” the proximate causes, such that examination of the proximate causes results in knowledge of ultimate cause(s) — in particular, the knowledge that the ultimate cause is an intelligent entity of some variety.”

    Somewhere along the “evolution” of “scientific” creationists to design “theorists” another line was crossed. At least the former made some effort to explain what the designer did and when, if not how. IOW, once ultimate causation was concluded, however unscientifically, there was some attempt, however clumsy, to get back to proximate causes. And even occasional public debating of disagreements, almost like real scientists.

    Unfortunately for them (to paraphrase Pope John Paul II) there was no convergence, despite all that seeking and fabricating of evidence. I might be the only one who believes this, but I think that the “don’t ask, don’t tell what the designer did, when or how” strategy would have been necessary sooner or later, even had anti-evolution activists won all the legal battles.

  11. “One problem with the NOMA idea is that religions make empirical claims all the time”

    Yes. But when those claims are untested, then they are inferior and must give way to tested claims. If religious types don’t like it, too bad. In fact, if we’re going to advocate accommodation here, they why not put the burden on religious types? They should accommodate us, seeing as how we have the evidence to back our claims and they don’t. To go against well supported claims in lieu of untested claims is irrational. It would be better if they don’t make those claims at all, and stick to metaphysics.

  12. LRA says: “They should accommodate us, seeing as how we have the evidence to back our claims and they don’t.”

    But they do have evidence! It’s all in scripture. Scientists only have a bunch of contrived stories based on their satanic preconceptions.

  13. Frank J. wrote, “IOW, once ultimate causation was concluded, however unscientifically, there was some attempt, however clumsy, to get back to proximate causes. And even occasional public debating of disagreements, almost like real scientists.”

    I think this is a good point. Creationists could be thought of, if my charitable interpretation may be excused, as proceeding hypothetico-deductively: they begin with a hypothesis, deduce what should be observed if the hypothesis is correct, and then see if the observations can be made. Since vast bulk of evidence conflicts with the expected observations, the hypothesis has been falsified. So creationists could be described as holding onto falsified science due to other, unquestioned assumptions. And that’s when the chicanery starts.

    The design people, on the other hand, don’t offer enough substance for them to ever form a hypothesis from which observations can be deduced. Hence design theory is not falsified — as creationism has been — but is unfalsifiable. They’ve watered it down so much — both for legal purposes and also, as Frank J. notes, to evade the fact that their hypothesis has failed to deliver — that they have nothing left to work with. It’s a slightly different kind of chicanery.

    So the ID people are right about one thing: creationism and intelligent design are different after all!

  14. Carl Sachs wrote: “So the ID people are right about one thing: creationism and intelligent design are different after all!”

    Warning: From 2003-06 I pleaded to let the IDers win that semantic battle, but no one budged. Nowadays I say that ID is creationism in the sense of “any strategy to promote unreasonable doubt of evolution and propose a design-based nonexplanation,” but not in the sense that most of the general public has in mind, namely “honest believer in a 6-day ~6000 year ago creation.” And I make sure to note the that the 2 definitions are yet another item in the DI’s bait-and-switch arsenal.

  15. Gabriel Hanna

    The design people, on the other hand, don’t offer enough substance for them to ever form a hypothesis from which observations can be deduced. Hence design theory is not falsified — as creationism has been — but is unfalsifiable. They’ve watered it down so much — both for legal purposes and also, as Frank J. notes, to evade the fact that their hypothesis has failed to deliver — that they have nothing left to work with. It’s a slightly different kind of chicanery.

    This is EXACTLY right. According to most of the DI fellows, evolution happens most of the time, with God stepping in once in a while; stepping in to specially create humans, according to some; or not, according to others. Stepping in ONE time, to originate life, or stepping multiple times… how can anyone prove or disprove anything so nebulous?

    It’s like if I said Sandy Koufax’s career was so improbable that it required divine intervention. I’m not saying he was a God himself; I’m not saying he ever broke the laws of physics; I’m not denying that 99.99% of the time what he was doing was consistent with being a very good and lucky pitcher; but that on a few or maybe even one occasions he must have had Divine help, but I don’t when or of what sort.

    Now who can argue with that?

  16. Gabriel Hanna wrote: ” God stepping in once in a while; stepping in to specially create humans, according to some; or not, according to others.”

    As you probably know, of all major ID promoters, Michael Behe comes out most strongly on the side of God not stepping in to specially create humans. And yet he’s probably cited more than any other activist these days by rank-and-file evolution deniers in their editorials, letters-to-the-editor, blog comments, etc. Go figure.